25 Years Ago: Alice in Chains Play in the ‘Dirt,’ Create a Dark Masterpiece
In 1990, when they released their debut album Facelift, Alice in Chains were considered metal. By 1992, as the group were about to unveil their sophomore full-length Dirt, Alice in Chains were being marketed by Columbia Records as full-on grunge.
So what changed? As far as the band goes, not too much. Sure, like many young bands, Alice in Chains had grown musically in those two years, writing more, playing acoustically and fully realizing the harmonic, siren-like effect of pairing the voices of frontman Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell on recordings.
But the band hadn’t changed nearly as much as the world around them. After all, between the two releases, Alice in Chains’ fellow Seattle groups (especially Nirvana and Pearl Jam) had become blockbuster bands. A strain of alternative rock called grunge – the much-derided term applied to the coarse but melodic music being churned out of the Pacific Northwest – was now a shade of the mainstream music palette. The music-buying public had caught up to Alice in Chains, who weren’t just playing to metalheads anymore.
Of course, the guys in Alice in Chains (Cantrell, Staley, bassist Mike Starr and drummer Sean Kinney) had helped this happen by appearing as a bar band in Cameron Crowe’s Singles, which depicted a semi-fictionalized version of the Seattle scene as it was exploding in real life. The band also contributed the new song “Would?” – written by Cantrell about another Seattle figure, the late Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone – which was released as a single in conjunction with the film in the summer of 1992.
As Singles hit screens and “Would?” arrived on radio, the band were preparing to put out Dirt, their second release of the year, following March’s acoustic EP, Sap. Between the EP, the soundtrack single and a new studio album (produced by Dave Jerden and also containing “Would?”), it was clear that Alice in Chains had been prolific, even after spending much of the past two years on tour.
“About half the album is a year-and-a-half to two years old, written on the Clash of the Titans tour,” Cantrell told RIP in 1992. “I think ‘Dirt’ and ‘Rooster’ are even older. The other half was written and put together about a month before we recorded. So a lot of it’s really new, which is good for us, really exciting.”
“Rooster” was something Alice in Chains had recorded for Sap, but decided to save for their next big album, perhaps because of how much the song meant to Cantrell, who wrote both the lyrics and the music for the song. The title refers to the guitarist’s father, who was nicknamed the Rooster, and the slow-burning song finds Cantrell imagining what it was like for his dad to fight in the Vietnam War. “Rooster”’s serious subject matter was made clear in its hit MTV video, which featured both father and son, as well as cinematic depictions of warfare.
“That experience in Vietnam changed him forever, and it certainly had an effect on our family, so I guess it was a defining moment in my life, too,” Cantrell told Team Rock in 2006. “But on ‘Rooster,’ I was trying to think about his side of it – what he might have gone through. To be honest, I didn’t really sit down intending to do any of that; it just kinda came out. … When I first played it to my father, I asked him if I’d got close to where he might have been emotionally or mentally in that situation. And he told me: ‘You got too close – you hit it on the head.’ It meant a lot to him that I wrote it. It brought us closer. It was good for me in the long-run and it was good for him, too.”
Meanwhile, frontman Staley was writing a different sort of song about his father. The lurching and swirling “Hate to Feel,” with lyrics and music by the singer, delves into Staley’s heroin habit as well as his past. When Layne was young, his father left the family and became a drug addict, causing the musician to vow that he’d never follow suit. As he found himself succumbing to similar temptations, Staley sang, “All this time I swore I’d never be like my old man / What the hey, it’s time to face exactly who I am.”
“Hate to Feel” was part of Dirt’s five-song cycle about drugs (which also included “Junkhead,” “Dirt,” “God Smack” and “Angry Chair”). Staley wrote the lyrics to all of the tracks, which began with the joys of getting high (“What’s my drug of choice? / Well, what have you got?”) and spiraled into troubling despair (“Lost my mind, but I don’t mind”). Staley, who had tried to quit heroin but was back on junk as the band made Dirt, would die from his addiction in 2002. Still, his bandmate was grateful for his ability to share a bit of an addict’s journey with Alice in Chains’ fans.
“[I had] … a lot of pride in seeing Layne grow as a guitarist and songwriter to create something so heavy,” Cantrell wrote in the liner notes to the Music Bank box set. “He’s always been so honest in his songs, which is like all of us. We don’t bulls--- in our music, we always pushed each other to say it as it needed to be said. We’ve always been fully for letting it all out.”
As a result of these tunes about drug abuse, as well as songs about war (“Rooster”), death (“Would?"), fighting (“Dam That River”) and mortality (“Them Bones”), Alice in Chains were building a reputation as a pretty gloomy band. Even with the goofy “Iron Man”-spoofing “Iron Gland” breaking up Staley’s drug suite and a bit of sarcasm woven into leadoff track “Them Bones,” Cantrell has repeatedly repudiated the idea that Alice in Chains was a band of depressives.
“That darkness was always part of the band, but it wasn’t all about that,” he told The Skinny in 2013. “There was always an optimism, even in the darkest s--t we wrote. With Dirt, it’s not like we were saying ‘Oh yeah, this is a good thing.’ It was more of a warning than anything else, rather than ‘Hey, come and check this out, it’s great!’ We were talking about what was going on at the time, but within that there was always a survivor element – a kind of triumph over the darker elements of being a human being.”
Filled with dark realities, sludgy sounds and serpentine guitars, Dirt became a triumph for Alice in Chains. Released on Sept. 29, 1992, the album spawned five singles (all rock radio hits, though none as major as “Rooster”), went to No. 6 on the Billboard album chart and went platinum four times over. Critical reviews and fans reactions were acclamatory. For better or worse, Dirt chiseled the band into the Mount Rushmore of grunge, alongside Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. But it also established Alice in Chains as a band that could appeal to fans of alternative rock and metal in a manner that few groups have accomplished.
Although the album marked a new breakthrough for Alice in Chains, its subsequent tours showed how a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle was wearing on some members of the band. Starr would leave the group in early ’93 due to his drug dependency, to be replaced by Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez. Alice in Chains’ stint on the Lollapalooza tour in the summer of 1993 would be the band’s last major trek with Staley fronting the group, as the singer’s heroin habit began to make large tours impossible.
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